ATLANTA, GEORGIA—When Yoehzer Yeeftahk saw images of Michael Brown’s lifeless body laying in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri for upwards of four hours, something within him changed. He told ThinkProgress he immediately thought of the lynching of African Americans that rocked his state just one generation ago.
“For them to leave that young man’s body out as a display, it was a message: don’t any of y’all step out of line.”
But Yeeftahk, who grew up in Atlanta’s West End, said that message has had the opposite effect. He and many others in Georgia were moved to demonstrate against police violence in their own communities, and push each other to get politically engaged and register to vote. Last week, he and other activists shut down the I-75 freeway to protest 75 days since Michael Brown’s death, and the lack of criminal charges against the officer who shot him.
With the midterm election just over a week away and Georgia’s Senate and Governor’s races too close to call, activists and political parties have made references to Ferguson in their get-out-the-vote materials. The organization Vote Mob has made thousands of stickers reading: “MIKE BROWN CAN’T VOTE. BUT I CAN,” while the Georgia Democratic Party mailed out early voting fliers that said, “If you want to prevent another Ferguson…VOTE! It’s up to you to make change happen.”
Yeeftahk said the message resonated with him and others in his community. “To me, Mike Brown represents the man who could have been anything,” he told ThinkProgress. “He was a week away from college when he was gunned down. So many of us are being snatched before we even get a chance to open our wings, and black and brown people have been disenfranchised away from taking and controlling their own power. That’s what voting power means to me. This is our time. We have paid for this with our sons and our blood.”
But others in the state have blasted these groups for putting out such campaign materials. Local conservative blogs have called it “racist fear-mongering,” while the Georgia GOP’s Leo Smith told Fox News the comparison is akin to “emotional abuse.”
Rich Thompson, the chairman of the Georgia Black Republican Council, called them “extremely inappropriate and disingenuous” in an interview with ThinkProgress at a rally for Senate Republican candidate David Perdue.
“It’s sad there are people who think they need to resort to playing the race card to get a political advantage,” he said. “There are plenty of issues to talk about that directly affect Georgians, rather than hijacking an issue from another state.”
When pressed on whether conflict with police was “an issue from another state,” Thompson said he is “not aware of any excessive force cases in Georgia.”
“We have an outstanding police force. Before we start to vilify and throw the very people who come to our aid in our most desperate of hours under the bus, we need to let due process run its course.”
This past weekend, hundreds of activists from across Georgia gathered at Atlanta’s Interdenominational Theological Center to tell a different story. At the “From Anguish to Activism” town hall on police brutality, Reverend Dinah Tatman with Greater New Vision Ministries told the crowd she doesn’t see Ferguson as ‘an issue from another state.’ “When one of us hurts, we all hurt, we all cry,” she said. Mary Hooks with Southerners on New Ground (SONG) added: “We see our people being criminalized on the daily. [Ferguson] wasn’t just a moment or an isolated event.”
Presenters told the story of Charles Smith, a 29 year old man in Savannah, Georgia who was shot and killed by police while handcuffed in the back of a squad car just a few weeks ago. They mentioned Katherine Johnson, a 92-year-old woman killed by Atlanta police in her home in 2006.
Freda Waiters spoke of her son Ariston Waiters, who was shot at point-blank range by police in Union City, Georgia in 2011. He was unarmed. Holding Ariston’s three year old daughter, who wore a checkered dress and her hair in two short puffs, Freda Waiters told the gathered activists: “She was five months old when her dad was gunned down. She’ll never know him.”
Marcus Coleman, co-founder of the civil rights group National Action Network, spoke about a botched SWAT team raid outside Atlanta this spring, in which officers with a no-knock search warrant for drugs tossed a flash-bang grenade into the crib of a 19 month old infant, causing serious, disfiguring injuries to his chest and face, and putting him in a coma for several weeks. No drugs or weapons were found in the home.
“You don’t have to go to Ferguson or Oakland to get some good old fashioned police brutality,” Coleman said. “They do it in every city, every state. And this time, they got a little bitty baby.”
These police killings and raids all received some media coverage, both locally and nationally. Still, activists at the town hall told ThinkProgress that everyday harassment from law enforcement deserves equal attention, yet goes largely ignored.
Yoehzer Yeeftahk said that outside the state’s big urban centers with diverse populations — Atlanta and Savannah, for instance — “black folks really aren’t welcome.” He said he felt this personally when he lived in the smaller towns Munroe and La Grange, which he referred to as a “police terror state.”
“When the cops hit the block, all the young boys scatter, and it ain’t because they’re doing nothing. They really are afraid,” he said. “I never drove a car there, I walked everywhere, and I was stopped on foot at least 10 times. My name was taken every time I was stopped, but they never gave a reason why they were stopping me. They created an atmosphere of intimidation where they were constantly putting people on edge. A psychiatrist would call that abuse.”
Energized by activists in Ferguson who continue to protest more than two months after Michael Brown’s death, young and older activists in Atlanta say they will continue to demonstrate and organize block by block.
“Black people in the community have a large stigma against voting, because it seems like it’s never worked for us,” Yeestahk said. “But we have been purposefully misinformed away from how to use that system for ourselves, and every year they come out with some new law directed at black people. But I say, let’s start local. If you can pick your councilman, your mayor, you can enact power. You can call them and say, ‘You represent us.'”
As they pursue voter engagement efforts among communities of color, activists with Southerners on New Ground, It’s Bigger Than You, and other grassroots youth organizations will engage in civil disobedience and other tactics to achieve political and social change.
“I see voting as just one step,” said Yeeftahk. “If the revolution takes 18 steps, you’ve got to do all 18 of them. You can’t skip no steps.”